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My KEXPORT Adventure

My KEXPORT Adventure

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Published August 2, 2012

Icelandic reggae? Why not? Icelandic hip hop? You know it’s going to be good. At least, I do now. If there’s anything I’ve learned over four trips to Iceland, it’s not to be surprised by the quality of Icelandic music, no matter what the genre. While there are many reasons I’d like to be visiting Iceland, that’s the one reason that keeps drawing me back.
As an employee of an independent radio station (KEXP in Seattle), I’m exposed to quite a lot of music, but there’s something about the Icelandic music scene that is specifically hard to identify and impossible to ignore. Undoubtedly, there are great bands everywhere, in every continent, in the U.S., in Seattle, in other Nordic countries, but at least at our station we have yet to find anywhere with such a high concentration of talent and diversity. Maybe that’s due to Iceland’s compact size, the higher cultural value Icelanders place on education and the arts in general or, as RÚV Channel 2’s Program Director, Ólafur Páll Gunnarsson, suggested, the weather. In Seattle, we too are overhung with dark winter days, the kind that encourage indoor activities like reading, painting or playing in a band, and that certainly contribute to our relatively high literacy rate as well. But even with Seattle’s own storied musical past and wealth of great bands new and old, we are constantly astonished by the quantity and quality of Iceland’s bands. 
And that’s why our Seattle-based radio station has come back to Iceland for the past several years and has just last year conducted our very first broadcast outside of the United States in Reykjavík during the Iceland Airwaves festival last year. When our friends at the KEX Hostel, which hosted our broadcast, and whose name in conveniently similar to our own (though we spell out the letters individually), decided to throw a party in our shared name, we were thrilled. Sporting a marathon line-up of twelve bands in twelve hours, KEXPORT featured many artists that we’ve been fortunate to host, record or film over the years: Agent Fresco and Sudden Weather Change, the two very first bands we recorded back in 2009; Snorri Helgason, one of the few Icelandic artists we’ve been able to host at our station in Seattle; as well as Hjálmar, Sóley, Kiriyama Family, and The Heavy Experience, all bands we heard and recorded for the first time last year. And if there was said to be a headliner, it would have to have been Ghostigital, fronted by the venerable godfather of Icelandic punk, who also happened to be the host of the 2009 sessions we recorded at RÚV… and who kept calling us “kex-pee” (that’s “biscuit-pee” for all of you non-Icelandic speakers). So for us, KEXPORT was the culmination of the times we’ve spent in Iceland, a bringing together of our accumulated friends, just as the party was a gathering of locals and their friends.  
For me, though, the true pleasure of coming back to Iceland to represent KEXP at KEXPORT grew out of my anticipation of discovering even more new bands. I wasn’t concerned that I hadn’t yet heard four of the dozen bands scheduled for the party because I knew from experience that they would undoubtedly be good. Tilbury I had listened to repeatedly over the previous week, but was eager to hear how the moody Brit-pop influenced debut, “Exorcise,” would translate live (brilliantly, of course). Human Woman and Dream Central Station were completely new to me and they certainly didn’t disappoint either. Human Woman seemed at first a comedy routine until the electronic duo of Gísli Galdur and Jón Atli Helgason launched into their captivating set of glitchy dance pop. Dream Central Station’s reverbed rock reminded me of The Jesus & Mary Chain backing The Vaselines, it’s a sound I personally prefer, but the biggest surprise for me was Úlfur Úlfur, a hip hop trio whose spot-on gesturing might be considered mere imitation if they hadn’t managed to pour so much heart and energy into their performance. They were perhaps the biggest draw of the day. Why I was surprised, I don’t know. I should have been around Icelandic musicians enough to realise that no matter how improbable the combination—last year for me it was Icelandic reggae—the musicianship, the display of talent, the unique and unquantifiable element that gives any genre performed by Icelanders a uniquely Icelandic twist, would shine through. Just as Hjálmar last year proved to me that Ísland music is island music, Úlfur Úlfur showed everyone at the hostel that hip hop’s soul is universal. 
I don’t know what to expect from you next year, Iceland, but do I expect it will be one of the best things I’ve ever heard.



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The Mengi Set

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Amongst the fast-changing merry-go-round of music venues in Reykjavík’s city centre, something unusual sprang up around last Christmas: a small, homely, unassuming performance space on Oðinsgata, called Mengi. It appeared quite suddenly, passed around initially only by word of mouth, but quickly become a well-liked venue hosting three shows a week for an intimate, fifty-strong audience. One of the people behind Mengi is bassist, guitarist and composer Skúli Sverrisson. Having lived in New York for over two decades, Skúli had recently moved back to Reykjavík when the project began. “I had been living in a very big city for 25

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After carefully lugging my vintage guitar amplifier all the way from New York to Iceland, I foolishly plugged it in without a power transformer. There was an unusually loud humming noise and then it started smoking. The smell of burned plastic gently wafted around my flat. My panicky brain immediately cycled through these thoughts: Smart move, Matt, not only will your wife kill you for nearly burning the place down, but also you’ve fried your amp. There was no avoiding the first problem. The second might just require a good repair guy. I started asking around and all of my

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Quarashi is an Icelandic rap group founded in the mid-90s by Sölvi Blöndal, Steinar “Steini” Fjeldsted and Höskuldur “Hössi” Ólafsson (Hössi left the group in early 2003, and was succeeded by Egill “Tiny” Thorarensen). The band recently resurfaced with “Rock On,” their first single after a nine-year hiatus. We spoke with founding members Sölvi and Steini about their history as a band and what thoughts went into making their latest music video. “Switchstance,” 1997 Director: Arnar Jónasson (director of the documentary ‘Rafmögnuð Reykjavík’ (‘Electronica Reykjavík’) Steini: That was the first thing we did, in the way of a song and

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The pouring rain in the past couple of weeks has made it painfully obvious: autumn is upon us. It’s the time of the year when it’s best to stay inside, curl up in a foetal position under a blanket and drink some hot cocoa. For that kind of non-activity you need a soundtrack. Here is ours. Megas: “Tvær Stjörnur”  Autumn is a time for heartbreak if there ever was one, and “Tvær stjörnur,” a song about lost love and the inevitable passing of time, is Megas at his most romantic and bittersweet. Megas, whose vocals are usually raspy and indistinct,

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